Why you should care
Because these curses have hundreds of years of meaning.
Addressing protesters before his trip to Australia in February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had a message, and it was unambiguous. “Do not burn my photo,” he said. “If you burn my photo, I will follow you home … I will follow you and beat you at home.” In Cambodia, there’s meaning beyond disrespect in burning someone’s image. Often, it’s seen as a malicious magic ritual — a curse. But if the Cambodian leader thought his threat would quell the protests against his now 33-year-long rule, he had underestimated his opponents — and their reach, as far away as Down Under.
“We took up that challenge,” says Hong Lim, a Cambodian-Australian and member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. A local Cambodian monk taught him and other protesters the proper Pali language words needed for the ritual. They preformed the ancient chants and burned effigies in Sydney’s Hyde Park near the hotel where Hun Sen was dining. They were “wishing him dead in the real sense of the word,” says Lim. They were also celebrating an old practice reborn in an unlikely new form.
Cambodia’s history with curses, magic and spells predates Buddhism, says Ian Bard, a professor of geography at University of Wisconsin-Madison. But while traditionally rituals were used in village spats and personal vendettas, new types of conflict between local communities on the one hand and politicians and businesses on the other have spawned a whole new avatar of the tradition. Faced with land grabs and displacement in the name of development, along with little recourse against their powerful opponents, communities and activists are increasingly turning to a last resort — spiritual warfare. It’s something both sides take seriously — even the country’s strongman prime minister.
It’s like handling radioactive material.
Ian Bard, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The neighborhood of Boeung Kak in Phnom Penh once sat on the shores of a lake — a small oasis in the dusty city that attracted guesthouses, restaurants and a thriving community. When the government made a deal with a private company in 2007 to build in the area they drained the water — turning it for years into a sandpit, destroying the local ecosystem and threatening those who resided on its shores with displacement. The lake’s destruction sparked especially frequent protests from residents — including a group of women known as the Boeung Kak 13 — and regular cursing ceremonies. The woman would march through the streets of Phnom Penh, burning effigies of politicians or judges, throwing salt and chili on the burnt remains and placing a curse on relevant authorities.
Since then, the instances of such desperation have only grown. In February of last year, hundreds of ethnic Kuoy villagers performed cursing ceremonies on a Chinese-owned sugar company and called on local spirits to help them find a solution to their ongoing land dispute. Then there’s the Borei Keila community that splattered a mixture of fish and pig blood, rice wine and ash outside a government building in Phnom Penh after they were kicked off the land in 2012. And there are those in Lor Peang that have asked for otherwordly help avenging land taken by a company co-owned by the wife of a government official.
These protests aren’t just for effect. They’re taken so seriously that local justice systems even take them into account, says Bard. For example, if you cursed someone and they happened to die — you would likely be blamed. It’s a risky thing to throw around.
“It’s like handling radioactive material,” says Bard.
Traditionally, these rituals have been used for serious perceived transgressions, says Courtney Work, a researcher at the Institute for Social Studies at Erasmus University. And land grabs, especially when they don’t consult the ”spirit” or “honored grandparent” owners of that land, fall into this category, she says. That marriage of ancient traditions and modern challenges is recent and mirrors the country’s journey.
As Cambodia has found relative peace and stability in the last decades, it had also opened itself up to investment and economic development. But the transition hasn’t been smooth. The NGO Forum on Cambodia recorded 56 new land dispute cases in 2017, which — adding to the hundreds already on file — was the highest number since 2007. And only 58 disputes were resolved in 2016, the report says. In 2014 alone, nearly 50,000 individuals were newly affected by land conflicts, says the nonprofit Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. That organization has blamed a corrupt judiciary and collusion between companies and the government. Bard sees the rituals as a last resort, “when people have been under pressure and really seriously threatened, really in a corner with no other option.”
Phanchhun Reth, 60, has lived in Boeung Kak for more than 20 years and says she’s participated in more than 100 protests against the destruction of the lake-side community. “Too many,” she says as she sits cross-legged on a wooden bed and talks over the sound of construction next door. She says her rituals are to turn “black to white, white to black”; making the guilty innocent and the innocent guilty — or dispensing “spiritual” justice without the courts. She and others learned the strategy from older generations, mostly in the rural areas. Where her ancestors were primarily concerned with offerings to spirits for luck, she says, she’s mostly in the business of righting injustice.
But nowadays, as the Cambodian government cracks down on dissent (the only viable opposition party was dissolved last year), even demonstrations and cursing ceremonies are harder — and riskier. It was one of these cursing rituals — to free jailed human rights workers — that some blame for finally upsetting the authorities enough to arrest a leader of the Boeung Kak community, Tep Vanny, who has been in prison now for over a year. Phanchhun says police show up in front of their house with warnings not to protest.
They don’t have the protective talisman of Australian law that parliament member Lim has. But they have spunk. Phanchhun says the community might just bring their rituals indoor. They’re not giving up just yet.